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Le Carré, John

smiley novels british novel

(British, 1931– )

Le Carré (real name David Cornwell) was a master at Eton and a British diplomat before publishing his first novel in 1961. He is generally regarded as the finest living writer of the espionage novel and also as a significant literary figure. His themes are the pull of conflicting loyalties, the tension between the individual and the state, and the often corrupting struggle between idealism and pragmatism.

Begin with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). A British agent is sent to East Germany, apparently to defect but actually to provide disinformation. After a typically complex series of twists, turns, and double-crosses, a very different picture emerges. This novel features George Smiley of the ‘Circus’ (British intelligence). Smiley is a pivotal character in many of the novels, in particular the Quest for Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley's People (1980). These all centre around the continuing search for a mole within the Circus whose very existence undermines everything Smiley and his colleagues stand for. The terrible tension at the heart of the novels rises from the dilemma of protecting society without stepping outside what that society regards as acceptable and humane.

Even after the cold war, Le Carré has continued to produce successful novels such as Our Game (1995), because his work has always been rooted in character rather than situation. Five of his books have been made into films; the Karla novels were adapted for award-winning BBC television series starring Alec Guinness.

Len Deighton, Gavin Lyall, Eric Ambler. See SPY  VM

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